SU adopts resolution urging campus-wide innovation in teaching practices

Dylan Bassett | Contributing Reporter

A resolution passed last week by Student Union Senate is the first step in the group’s longer-term plans to bring more innovative classes, similar to freshman seminars, to Washington University.

The resolution, written by junior Shane Carr and freshman senator David Gumins of the Academic Affairs Committee, looks to launch a collaborative effort between Senate and the administration to investigate how more technology and student interaction could be built into the University’s curriculum across all undergraduate divisions.

Carr and Gumins first proposed a resolution on Oct. 30 encouraging the University to begin offering freshman seminar-style classes to upperclassmen by fall 2015, but the measure was tabled because senators felt they had drafted it without weighing the many factors involved in restructuring the school’s academic curricula.

The two students came back a week later with a revised resolution that was more conceptual than practical. While the resolution, which was passed Nov. 6 and signed by SU President Matt Re on Wednesday, lacks concrete goals and a timeline for implementation of any new practices, senators say it will allow more research to be done before they begin to work on any specific changes.

“I think it might have pushed us back on the timeframe, but it gave us more flexibility to do more research to come up with a broader array of action items, and it kind of gave purpose to our task,” Gumins said. “And so from there we have a lot more opportunity.”

While the Senate resolution no longer describes particular action plans because the body sanctioned the overall mission statement, individual senators will have more freedom to work on projects in line with the overall objective of educational “innovation.”

“We can at least start the process,” Gumins said.

Gumins said he was motivated to draft the resolution by his freshman seminar, “Ideation: Idea Generation,” taught by drama professor Robert Mark Morgan, in which students read about different types of learning styles and artistic processes and then experience them firsthand.

Wednesday, the class was making collages using magazine clippings that represent each student as a “creative being.”

Morgan’s inspiration for the class, for which he had to petition the administration, was experimental classes currently being offered by Stanford University and Tufts University. A professor at Washington University for three years, Morgan said he thought bringing a cross-disciplinary class to the Danforth Campus would benefit students of all disciplines.

“I want to make sure that they understand that going through life is about finding out what your best creative process is and applying that to [the] problem-solving that you have to do, whether you [study] business or science or math or architecture,” Morgan said. “Hopefully, they can take these tools and use them for four years and beyond.”

Gumins said the class, which focuses on the nature of education itself, made him more conscious of the way different methods can be used in the classroom.

“The whole class itself showed me…the value of learning about the creative process, that it’s something many Wash. U. students are exposed to but not many people are self-aware about,” Gumins said. “It provided insight into the creative process and showed me that it could benefit people, and that was really interesting.”

Gumins plans to meet with Provost Holden Thorp in the coming weeks to discuss future courses of action in collaboration with the administration.

While the Senate resolution does not explicitly reference new technology in the classroom, it is one of the main aspects of what many on campus consider innovative education.

Jennifer Smith, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, is finalizing a program in which professors can be paid to teach courses over the summer if they incorporate technology and class participation, in addition to other teaching techniques.

Max Bieber, a junior studying archaeology, said technology in the classroom can be valuable but only to a certain point. He said some of the advanced apparatuses he used during field research might have been valuable in the field but would be extraneous in the classroom.

“Some [professors] have machines from the ’80s; some have Smartboards and stuff like that. The younger ones generally use more technology than the older ones,” Bieber said. “It’s not really necessary for lecture classes to have the most up-to-date technology.”

Other students said that professors who rely more on technology are not always doing a better job.

“One of my math teachers teaches math on slides, and obviously that sucks. You can’t teach math from slides,” junior Nicole Ensz said.

Junior Brady Perkins said the value of technology in the classroom can vary by subject.

“With math, I would much rather have someone write on a board so I could write and follow it at the same time, but with more of a lecture-oriented class, like in my [Introduction to Biomedical Engineering] class, where it’s more talking and less equations, I feel like it definitely helps,” Perkins said.

Sophomore Roo Hiremath said none of her professors use technology in any particularly creative way but said she finds basic slides sufficient.

“I actually don’t mind slides as long as they talk about them,” Hiremath said. “I actually like that a lot because they have the pictures drawn up there, and I don’t have to spend time copying pictures—I can just write about them.”

Looking forward, Morgan said he would like to see more innovative, “design-oriented” classes—which focus not only on content but the teaching mechanism itself—on campus, particularly collaborations between different departments. But he stressed that it is still an experimental method.

“There’s probably a bunch of us on campus that could sort of collaborate and teach under one roof,” Morgan said. “I don’t know if this will really take hold as a school, [but]…you’ll never know until you try it.